C.L.R James 1941

The Bolsheviks in the War

Source: The New International, Volume VII, Number 2 (Whole No. 51), February 1941 pp. 30-32, signed J.R. Johnson;
Transcribed and Marked up: by Damon Maxwell.

HERE IS ONE OF THE most valuable books published for many years. (The Bolsheviks and the World War. The Origin of the Third International, by Olga Hess Gankin and H. H. Fisher. 1940. xviii plus 856 pp. Stanford University Press. Calif. $6.00. Hoover Library on War, Revolution, and Peace, publication No. 15.) It is a collection of documents dealing with the origin of Bolshevism from 1903 to 1917, with special though not entire reference to international relations and war.

In this comprehensive record one can see from 1903 onward, as in a great work of art, the developing clashes between Bolshevism and Menshevism of all types, from Martov on the extreme left to Kautsky during the war. And in this bourgeois compilation, on every crucial occasion, the Bolsheviks are right. Lenin’s determination to cut the Bolsheviks away organizationally from these plagues is seen as the inescapable result of the political irreconcilability of the two tendencies. Take the conference of the Second International at Stuttgart in 1907. A majority of the Colonial Commission supported a resolution which concluded:

For this purpose the delegates of socialist parties should propose to their governments that they conclude an international treaty in order to adopt a colonial statute by which they would protect the rights of the natives and which would be entirely guaranteed by the states which conclude this treaty.

All the betrayals, from 1914 to the present day, are inherent in the above. It was fought down and defeated after a sharp dispute. On militarism there was a still sterner struggle. Bebel, the aged leader of the German Social-Democracy, proposed that in case of a war threat, the workers must exert every effort to stop it. If they failed they must intervene in favor of the war’s early termination. Bebel said frankly that the adoption of fighting methods might prove fatal to the party life – the age-old illusion of moderates. Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Martov (for once) led a drastic opposition. Bebel was beaten but asked that the resolution should express the same thought in less provocative language –Menshevism all over.

Lenin, with his usual incision and daring, at that time already formulated the guiding line of his war policy. It was not a question of “preventing the outbreak of war, but a matter of utilizing the crisis resulting from the war to hasten the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.” Peace as a slogan he consistently denounced. Peace, but peace by revolution. He and Rosa Luxemburg tried to organize an illegal fraction in the Second International, directed against the leaders. They failed through lack of support. Here is a typical example of the “conspiratorial” and “wrecking” methods typical of Bolshevism. For our part we can only wish Lenin and Rosa had started earlier and had had more success. Conspiracy itself is no crime. What matters is against whom you conspire and for what.

In December, 1913, the Bolsheviks published their conditions for unification with other groups of the Russian Social-Democracy, then split into a dozen warring groups and factions. The most important was the insistence on full and unreserved recognition of the underground organization. The refusal to compromise on the question of underground work is seen in this volume in a new light. In June, 1914, Vandervelde visited Russia and interviewed Martov on the possibilities of unity. Martov “endeavored to concentrate Vandervelde’s attention,” to use his own words, on the “crux” of the matter. The Russian movement was not working in caves with masks on. They were working under “practically European conditions.” Even the Pravda officials (Bolsheviks) had received Vandervelde “pompously,” arranged interviews by telephone and posed with him for pictures in the office. Vandervelde therefore “should no longer take seriously the talks about our ‘liquidationism’ and will understand the charlatan character of the talks about the underground organization!” Seven weeks after, the first World War tell like a hammer on the Russian proletariat. The Bolsheviks suffered terribly. But they retained at least the nucleus of an illegal organization, the party was trained and disciplined for the hard days that were ahead. Martov’s “European conditions” had vanished, like other Menshevik illusions.

The attempt to prove that Lenin was caught unawares by the war with its inevitable struggle for the socialist revolution is hardly worth serious refutation. One of his colleagues here relates that on the very first day of the war, Lenin was ready with a policy and plans for action against the bourgeoisie. On the very day, or the day after he reached Switzerland from Poland, he wrote his first thesis on the war. The opening lines can never be too often repeated.

...The struggle for markets and the looting of countries the intention to deceive, disunite and kill off the proletarians of all countries, by instigating the hired slaves of one nation against the hired slaves of the other for the benefit of the bourgeoisie – such is the only real meaning and purpose of the war.

The only way out was socialism. Turn the imperialist war in civil war. For what if not for socialism?

Lenin was “unfair” to Trotsky in his attacks on him during the war. Yet Lenin’s ferocity was due to Trotsky’s estimate of the different groups in Russia. Trotsky wrote that “the last speeches ... of Chkheidze ... and [his] voting undoubtedly represent steps forward toward political precision and revolutionary irreconcilability.” That Lenin could not under any circumstances tolerate. Chkheidze was a leading light of the Organization Committee, a grouping which showed its political precision and revolutionary irreconcilability against the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution from the day after Tsarism fell. How blame Lenin for the apparent vindictiveness of his attacks against Trotsky, who opposed the war as resolutely as Lenin did? Lenin under-stood the Chkheidzes of all shades. Trotsky he personally respected always, but precisely because of Trotsky’s great qualities, his constant efforts at unity with people whom Lenin knew to be rotten made him the special target of Lenin’s attacks. That is Bolshevism. As the revolution approached, Lenin became more and more sharp, more and more doctrinaire. The volume before us quotes Krupskaya: “Never, I think, was Vladimir Ilyitch in more irreconcilable mood than during the last months of 1916 and in the early months of 1917. He was profoundly convinced that the revolution was approaching.” For a short time during this period he wavered in the imminence of his expectation. The revolution itself cut short this fleeting mood of despondency.

But the irreconcilability of Bolshevism, its almost neurotic suspicion of theoretical weakness and deviation as an infallible sign of feebleness or betrayal in practice, went hand in hand with a vigor and a dialectical brilliance in polemic unsurpassed in political history. Lenin’s irreconcilability never consisted of shouting abstract principles and slogans from a comfortable chair. He abounded in exposition, illustration and illumination of principles in the concrete. He took an opponent’s argument and turned it inside out, showing all its roots and ramifications. After a reasonable time he called for decision and action. The time for debate was over. But he had debated. He debated not as an unwilling concession to “democracy” but to elucidate a question.

... The purpose of the civil war is the seizure of banks, factories, shops, etc., the abolition of all opposition on the part of the bourgeoisie, the extermination of its army. But this aim can be attained neither from a purely military nor economic nor political standpoint without a simultaneous introduction and propagation of democracy among our troops and at our rear – an introduction and propagation which will develop in the course of that war. We tell the masses now (and the masses instinctively feel that we are right in this) : ‘They deceive you with the great slogans of democracy while leading you into war for the sake of imperialist capitalism. You must lead and you will lead a really democratic war against the bourgeoisie and for the purpose of actually carrying out democracy and socialism.’ The present war unites and ‘fuses’ the people into a coalition by means of force and financial dependence. We, in our civil war against the bourgeoisie, will not unite and consolidate the people by means of the power of the ruble, by the power of a club, by violence, but by a voluntary consent, by the consolidation of the toilers against the exploiters. For the bourgeoisie the proclamation of the equality of all nations has become a deception; for us it will be the truth which will facilitate and hasten the attraction to our side of all nations. Without actually organizing the relations between the nations on a democratic basis – and hence without granting freedom of secession – there can be no civil war of the workers and the toiling masses of all nations against the bourgeoisie.

We must proceed toward a socialist and consistently democratic organization of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and against opportunism through the utilization of bourgeois democracy. There is no other path. A different ‘way out’ is not a way out. Marxism knows no other way out, just as real life knows none. We must include in this policy free secession and free union among nations, rather than brush them aside or fear that their inclusion might ‘soil’ the ‘purely’ economic tasks.

There are a dozen such passages in any hundred pages of this volume. Much of the book is taken up with detailed reports of the three conferences at Zimmerwald, Kienthal and Stockholm. Lenin and his small band of Bolsheviks were from the start on the extreme left. They did not evolve to that position. At Zimmerwald, he made an attempt to win sup-port for a full revolutionary program from these pioneers in the struggle against the war. He had a moderate success. Then as the suffering began to stir the masses, some of the West European Mensheviks began to step gingerly towards some kind of protest against the carnage. As usual these leaders, organic opportunists, came towards the revolution only to corrupt it. One of them made a violent speech against Lenin at Kienthal. Said Grumbach, “This question reveals the whole of Lenin, together with the spectacles through which he looks at everything. The hunger demonstrations in Germany are supposed to be the beginning of revolutionary mass struggles! He actually dared to write this!... Does Lenin expect to aid the cause of international socialism, the cause of an early peace – which, as a matter of fact, does not interest him at all – by spreading these illusions?” Such are our realists. He bitterly admitted that Lenin and his friends had played an “important” role at Zimmerwald and a “decisive” role at Kienthal. But Lenin could do that only because of his Bolshevik habit of seeing everything through the spectacles of revolution. In 1917, the new alarmed Social-Democrats sought in force to come to the third Zimmerwald conference, to use the prestige of Zimmerwald as a medium for peace feelers. Lenin denounced the conference, a solitary vote against the vote of the whole Russian party. Soon, however, the party, as usual, agreed with him. One of the prominent figures at this conference in 1917, was Angelica Balabanoff. The conference was a failure, and Balabanoff explained why. It was the fault of the workers. “The masses themselves should begin to stir. This would require psychological and objective promises, which today – let us be honest about it – are absent. In Germany there is no visible mass action....” No, the good Angelica was no Bolshevik.

Such was Bolshevism in theory. But what kind of organization could flow from such a theory? There are some people who seriously believe that you can combine the theory of Lenin with the organization of Norman Thomas, that you can hold a party together against the whole weight of bourgeois society and the plausible sophistries of Menshevism, its agent, by allowing everyone to say and do, come and go, as he pleases. It is like putting an air-ace in a donkey-cart and asking him to show some speed.

The editing of the volume is a remarkably capable, and even from the Bolshevik point of view, a strictly honest piece of work. In their comments the authors show a curious tendency. They have entered so thoroughly into the spirit of their task that they write at times like Bolshevik supporters. They speak of one Menshevik group as adopting Marxist principles but carrying out opportunist policies—a judgment made without qualifying statements or quotation marks. They make other comments of permanent wisdom, e.g., that the interminable splits of which this book is one long record were due to the decline of the revolutionary mass movement. How many would-be Bolsheviks have lived for years in the movement and not understood that simple but profound truth! One thing is certain. This book will be studied by the bourgeoisie and by revolutionaries. The persons who will not study it are the liberal critics of Bolshevism. You will find as a rule that the less these “educated” critics know about Marx and Lenin, the bolder and more comprehensive is their criticism.